I started my short time in Cambodia in Siem Reap, to see the ancient temples. I didn’t love the city of Siem Reap (it was very touristy in the part I had time to see), but I couldn’t come to this part of the world without seeing Angkor Wat. I spent my first day around town – mostly I visited the National Museum (which was a good history lesson and background for the temples), hid out from the heat by the hotel pool, and took a cooking class at La Tigre de Papier.
I was not as surprised and impressed by Cambodian food as I was by Laotian food, but did try some interesting things (like tree ants sautéed with beef). Their most popular main dish seems to be amok, which is basically a yellow curry without coconut milk that can be made with just about any meat (although fish is the most popular). We made fish amok in my cooking class and I had amok three more times while in Cambodia. Apart from the lack of coconut milk, I had a hard time identifying the distinguishing characteristics of Cambodian food. What I could figure out in my short time here is that their food is not spicy (they only sporadically serve chilies on the side), and I saw more insects integrated into things. I also learned a far more efficient way of cooking sticky rice in my cooking class (just cook it in a pan – no special steam basket required like in Laos and Thailand).
So, anyway, about the temples . . . I did a day tour with a guide and caught the sunrise at Angkor Wat. It was worth starting that early, if only to beat the big crowds. Unfortunately by 9:00 a.m. not only was it incredibly hot, I discovered that both my camera batteries were on their last legs. So I could only get the “money shorts” at many of the temples I visited. Oh well, lesson learned (don’t assume Aisa plugs actually delivered power to your devices when you plugged them in).
Apart from the fact that these temples have stood for so long, what I found most fascinating is that they were used as both Hindu and Buddhist temples at different times. The Khmer people switched between Hinduism and Buddhism several times in their history – according to what the then-current king preferred. Although now primarily Buddhist, you can still see the influence of both (I was previously confused by seeing so many Vishnu statutes around a primarily Buddhist country). So Angkor Wat started out as a Hindu temple, and was later changed to a Buddhist one – just by painting it red and updating the central statute to a Buddha, leaving intact the original Hindu carvings (like the carving of the fable about the gods and demons churning the sea of milk to release a tonic that provides immortality). But Ta Prohm started off as a Buddhist temple and was later converted to a Hindu one – this transformation was more harsh, as the Buddha carvings were either chiseled off or updated to look like praying Hindu priests.
I was overall happy that I saw the temples, but two days in Siem Reap was enough.
Itching to get out of Siem Reap, I headed to Battambang, a smaller city with many old French colonial buildings still intact. While Siem Reap didn’t give me a great first impression of the “real” Cambodia, Battambang totally redeemed it. Much of that is because I spent time outside the city doing a tuk tuk tour with a guide who spoke decent English (“Sam”).
I had scheduled a walking tour in the old historical city center for my first afternoon in town – turned out to be just me and two guides (one in training). I have to say, sadly, it was the worst walking tour I’ve ever had. The guides couldn’t really tell me much of anything about what we saw (they pointed and told me the name of things…uh, okay) and couldn’t speak English well enough to understand my questions. Not much of a reward for walking around in the crazy heat! The highlight was actually when they suggested we have the sugar cane juice I’d seen everywhere in SE Asia but had yet to try. Of course it’s really good – not super sweet, but it did make my teeth hurt!
The best thing the guides did for me was to point out a good restaurant – Jaan Bai – where I went right after they released me from the “tour.” The food was great (I got an actual salad – yippee!), and I ended up meeting two sweet Aussie ladies (Lyn and Denise) who I tagged along with to a really fun circus at a nonprofit that runs arts programs for local youth. Although the dialog was in Khmer, we got the gist of the storyline and the kids were talented performers!
The next morning I ventured out and found a huge breakfast ($3) at a cute little café that became my spot while in town. The owner was so sweet and even gave me free fruit every day.
I then “made a tour” with my tuk tuk driver, Sam. He showed me around town a bit before we headed out to the countryside. We went by the old train station, which is no longer in use. There I saw cool decrepit old repair sheds – some with interesting graffiti inside, and some with families living inside.
I have to say, the level of poverty I’ve seen in parts of SE Asia is eye-opening. Many don’t have the luxury of worrying about much beyond survival. And they work really hard to survive and make do with little. It has really made me realize my privilege in a way I hadn’t before. Strangely it hit home when I watched an episode of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. I haven’t really remained plugged-into media (especially American media), and being here so long, spending time among everyday people, I have come to understand the way of things and what drives people here more than I could on a short trip. And I can’t even remember exactly what it was that Jimmy Fallon was joking about in his monologue or discussing with his guests, but it struck me as foreign. I understood it, of course I’m still an American, but I saw it from a different perspective. Not only did it bring into focus how privileged we are (we have the luxury of concerning ourselves with things that are so far removed from the day to day reality for many here), but I could actually see how, from an outside perspective, American culture holds the allure and promise of wealth and ease. I started to understand why so many Cambodians told me they want to move to the U.S. for a better life (despite my attempt to tell them it’s not necessarily a better life just because they can earn more, it’s a complicated cost-benefit analysis). It was enlightening to see the privilege I’ve mostly taken for granted through the perspective I’ve gained during these last two months.
On my tour, I also rode the old bamboo train (a tourist must) – which is really just a bamboo platform on four wheels with a small engine (lawn mower? motorbike?) to propel it forward. It goes faster than you’d expect! And to turn it around the drivers just lift the platform off the tracks and either move it aside or turn it around so the “train” is propelled in the other direction. We also stopped by a Cambodian winery, where they made a red wine, sherry, and grape juice. It was interesting, but (to put it mildly) nowhere close to California standards.
I also saw lots of bats – both a bat-filled tree (with big bats) and a bat cave (with small bats). At the bat cave the small bats fly out in a swarm every evening to go hunting for food. They fly in swarms over the fields, like a big snake in the air. I also visited a Muslim fishing village, and hiked up a hill with some great views, and the killing cave (into which the Khmer Rouge dropped their victims without the need to kill them first, ugg). Everywhere we went it was smiles and waves from the children – apparently Cambodian kids really love white people. And if I got close enough they would just want to touch me (high fives all around…even the small babies would reach out their hands). It was very sweet.
My last morning in town I did a mini-tour, and saw where they make rice paper, fermented fish paste (a stinky place, of course), and sticky rice in bamboo. We also stopped by the Well of Shadows, a memorial to the locals who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. There are killing fields everywhere (over 300), and this is one of the many. It’s hard to go touring in Cambodia without being shown these parts. It was hard for me know whether the Khmers are open to talking about that short, violent period in their history, or whether they’d rather not. I tried to ask Sam this question but I don’t think he knew what I meant. I generally didn’t bring it up, since I don’t see the need to. It is part of their history, but there is so much more to the Khmer culture that I prefer to give attention to (the great Khmer empire covered most of SE Asia at one time, after all).